Friday, December 16, 2011

AARON is the world’s first cybernetic artist: an artificially intelligent system that composes its own paintings. Incredibly, the system is the work of one man, Harold Cohen, who had no background in computing when he began the effort. 

Cohen was a prominent painter; he represented Great Britain in the Venice Biennale of 1966. After settling in San Diego, he became interested in the exotic new field of computer programming. It was still performed on punch cards, but Cohen began to teach a computer to paint, modeling the decisions made by an experienced artist — as though he were teaching a particularly dense art student. 

“The vast majority of us,” Cohen says, “follow rules that somebody else taught us when we were growing up and going to art school. Nobody really invents art from scratch. … The computer can in principle enact whatever rules you’re capable of enunciating, but enunciating those rules in a computer language is a nontrivial issue.” (That’s British for ‘astonishingly difficult.’)  

Cohen taught AARON to paint black and white abstractions, then added color, then figuration. He taught it that human bodies fall within a spectrum, how certain types of plants grow, and more. Looking at its paintings, it’s hard to believe that the painter ‘felt’ nothing while making them. 

Edward Feigenbaum, one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence, considers AARON a remarkable example of AI displaying genuine creativity. “What you call a creative act, it’s actually a behavior that you observe,” he says, “It elicits a kind of emotion of, ‘how did he or she or it think of that?’” 

Yet Cohen himself disagrees; he considers AARON — into which he has poured 40 years of his life — not to be creative. “I think creativity has to involve self-modification in the sense that the creative act has to leave the creator with a different world model than it had before,” he argues. AARON is highly intelligent, but “having a brain and having a life are two different things.” 


Quiz credits: Alana Harper, Jenny Lawton, Katie Long, Carolina Miranda, and Elizabeth Zagroba

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Jessica Benko

Comments [42]

Robyn Markcum from Chicago IL

Can someone who know Ray and Mr Cohen please ask them to update the software so that I may enjoy it. It only runs on windows 95 I no longer own a computer that old?? I would like to have the screen saver Aaron for my computer I would even be happy to pay for the app!!

Aug. 04 2014 12:45 AM

I've never been a David Hockney fan. Now I know why; his paintings look like a computer's.

Jul. 09 2012 09:00 AM
Mr. Wakiki from 12801

1) How is this any better or worse than they person who airbrushes Elvis after Elvis on velvet.

2) if you buy one of these (where and how) are you paying for the art or the programming or the art of programing

Mr. W

Jul. 08 2012 11:32 PM
Tomas from Brooklyn


Jul. 07 2012 04:33 PM
Lindsey from PA

If the human art were any good, it would be easier to tell them apart. Normally, I would look for clues that a human eye was judging and balancing the picture: a sense of grace, balance, harmony, contrast, etc. Computers would inevitably be formulaic by comparison. However, the human art here is so stilted it looks like someone was trying to imitate computer-generated art.

Jul. 07 2012 03:43 PM

difficult at best when we both think and paint in the abstract.

Jul. 07 2012 01:08 PM
Fran from philly

great pictures

Jul. 07 2012 07:35 AM

All of the images are wretched. who cares who made them, really.....

Jul. 05 2012 09:31 PM
Emily Chloe Henochowicz from Maryland

Excuse my typos, I'm using an iPad.

Mar. 01 2012 11:24 PM
Emily Chloe Henochowicz from Maryland

The first one is done by a computer - look at how the lines are arbitrarily wiggly while the curvature of the base is perfect. The second one is also computery, just look at all the straight lines and how the shapes overlap without in any way distorting the color underneath. now the third picture is truly human - just as the vase was too perfect with a slight shift of the line, this vase is smooth and three-dimensional yet impossible with roughness occurring as a result of the stroke. Although the fourth one has sharp edges a a solid black color, the subtle background underneath responds to this shape to form it into something abstractly evocative of flesh, therefore human. Now the next one has computerized brush strokes with oddly smooth edges and predictable jagged edges at the end of a stroke, however this is only the fault of the computer program. The lines have a quality of searching. The grey shadow on the vase crawls up the form. And just look at the flowers! A quick scrible of white with a dash of gray over it excellently describes a flower. Very human indeed. Number six is the most calculated of the bunch. I think the utter sharp flatness of the form and the rigid and random layering of the plant forms screams computer. Finally our old friend the computer went back to abstraction, only this time giving the colors almost a painterly fluctuation of color. It almost passes for human if it were not for the effect of the flat forms having an earie quality of having been placed in Z space (it looks like flattened 3d).

It is surprising how much the computers can fool us, but a closer look shows us the computers do not make art like artist... yet.

Mar. 01 2012 11:21 PM


Jan. 12 2012 05:18 PM
Sandra Lanz

Jan. 03 2012 02:57 PM
Paulie from Madison, WI

I don't see any Aha! moments coming directly from computers. More information and more rules will produce more permutations. The computers may give us the ability to see things differently. Then we have a chance to be creative.

Jan. 02 2012 10:12 AM
Josh from Virginia

It's interesting how teaching a computer to paint relates to how we teach our own children and students to perform various creative acts. Very interesting!

Dec. 27 2011 09:35 AM
Marita Sandstrom from Madison NH

Finding that any cluster of points could easily follow any x,y position on the screen (in polar coords) opened my eyes to the magic. How quickly could I make 5 pointed kaleidoscopes, for example, so impossible impossible to make in reality. NO! Computers never produce art, they only produce pixel clusters in 2D or 3. The analogy is paint: paint never produces art nor the brushes nor the canvas nor the palate knives nor the scrap of fluorescent color artfully placed on a leaf in the sunlight.

Dec. 22 2011 10:08 AM
Jim Jordan

Ah, what is art?

Dec. 21 2011 11:08 PM


Dec. 20 2011 09:31 PM
Will from seattle

I was wondering if Aaron has an appendage it paints with or if it just "prints" the painting.....,

Dec. 20 2011 05:53 PM
marcia bennett from nyc

would like to see the score before analyzing my errors!

Dec. 20 2011 04:25 PM
Heidi E. Dickens from Blacksburg, Virginia


Dec. 20 2011 12:59 PM
Nancy from CT

Interesting to see David Hockney's iPad art (which inspired me to get the "Brushes" app) compared to Aaron's output. Kind of a trick quiz, tho, since both are digitally generated.

Dec. 19 2011 02:35 PM
Emma from NYC

To those asking about their scores: you can click on "See Results" to find out the correct answers and see how other quiz-takers responded.

Dec. 19 2011 12:01 PM

cannot compute

Dec. 19 2011 03:51 AM
hollis james

It's a crapshoot!!!

Dec. 19 2011 12:25 AM
pharmerthom from Seattle

Well, still unsure as to what did what.

Dec. 18 2011 11:33 PM
Halu from NYC

Only the emotional contents can touch our feelings and hearts.

Dec. 18 2011 10:21 PM

score please

Dec. 18 2011 08:14 PM


Dec. 18 2011 07:40 PM
ken from Norway


Dec. 18 2011 06:30 PM


Dec. 18 2011 05:25 PM


Dec. 18 2011 05:18 PM
dman from nyc

comment to flw after my score

Dec. 18 2011 03:04 PM

I just want my score!

Dec. 18 2011 02:36 PM

Honestly, they all looked a bit stiff and calculated, so I kept feeling like they were all computer-generated, or at least created on a computer.

Dec. 18 2011 02:32 PM
Holly from Upstate NY


Dec. 18 2011 12:34 PM
Sandra Chamberlin from New Jersey

I tried to see the handedness in the mark to
help decide which was hand made and which by a machine. Is Aaron" left or right" handed?

Dec. 18 2011 11:42 AM
Audrey Wreszin

There seems to be an over-all pattern in what I judged to be computer art: abstract design. I thought those paintings that depicted what a human might actually see (individual objects) etc. were made by a human. The colors used in the abstract art was very interesting.

Dec. 18 2011 11:41 AM


Dec. 18 2011 11:31 AM


Dec. 18 2011 12:28 AM
Andy from No virginia

Answers please

Dec. 17 2011 07:52 PM
Sterling from Miami

kill technology

Dec. 17 2011 03:09 PM
lonny from brooklyn


Dec. 16 2011 05:59 PM

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